A new memoir about growing up gay in pre-liberalization India is a welcome addition to Indian gay writing
Vivek Tejuja’s So Now You Know is a light-hearted and often poignant slice-of-life story
Iremember twirling…. The year was 1991. I was all of eight years old and didn’t know any better. Or did I? Had I by then named the attraction I felt towards boys? Was I aware of what I was doing with my body as I danced without giving a damn, without realizing it—till a hand struck my face, very hard at that—and I somehow knew it was because of what I was doing? Not just dancing, but dancing like a girl.... ‘What do you think you are doing?’ my uncle thundered. I was speechless. I didn’t know how to respond. To my mind, I was only dancing and nothing else. Why was it such an issue?" writes Vivek Tejuja in So Now You Know, a memoir about growing up gay in a conventional multigenerational joint family in pre-liberalization India.
This slim book will be released on 6 September, the first anniversary of the reading down of Section 377. The 36-year-old Mumbai-based writer and editor (he currently edits the culture section at Verve magazine) recalls, in a light-hearted but often poignant way, the struggles of growing up gay in a world that gave you no opportunity to understand and accept yourself; where all the gay characters you saw in movies and on television were objects of mockery played for crass comic relief.
In a way, the internet has changed all that for young Indians—even those who live in smaller towns and cities. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in India often meant you wouldn’t meet another gay person well into young adulthood. Tejuja writes with empathy and humour about this utterly alienating experience.
The number of books about being gay in India is necessarily inadequate, given that it’s just about a year since homosexuality was decriminalized. However, there are a few outstanding and some interesting takes. In 2016, poet Hoshang Merchant published Secret Writings Of Hoshang Merchant, an evocative memoir that laid bare “the prejudice and neglect that are part of everyday gay life". In 2015, social activist Siddharth Dube wrote No One Else: A Personal History Of Outlawed Love And Sex, about his experience growing up gay at an elite boarding school and, subsequently, college. Earlier this year, journalist Sharif Rangnekar published Straight To Normal: My Life As A Gay Man. He had been waiting for the verdict on Section 377 to publish the book without “fear of a backlash", Ragnekar has said in interviews.
Tejuja’s memoir treads lightly; one frequently wishes it would plunge deeper into the writer’s defining moments instead of looking at them through a patina of almost wistful memory. In some passages where he talks about his initial sexual experiences, there is no squeamishness, but nostalgia often overpowers what could have been searing and sharp. Tejuja says he had to leave a lot of hurt and anger out: “There have been many changes from the first draft to the final version. I didn’t want to hurt anyone in my family. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim. I didn’t want to be vengeful."
As a quiet, sensitive boy who loved reading and hated sports, Tejuja found solace in books and movies; pop culture, especially Bollywood, bookended his writing. As much as he dreaded seeing the caricature-ish portrayals of supposedly gay characters in Hindi films, he identified with the glamorous heroines of Yash Raj Films twirling to music wrapped in diaphanous saris.
“For a very long time, I thought I could be someone else... I just didn’t think I fit into the mould of ‘gay people’ in my head, which was basically loud and flamboyant," he writes, bringing home, once again, how important representation is; how vital to be exposed to the idea that “people like us are normal". Hopefully, authors and publishers in India will bring us more varied and diverse fiction and non-fiction that capture the Indian queer experience in all its complexity.